April 16th, 2017
Invite guests over for a meal. Being polite, you dine them with great gusto. Your table provides an abundance of food of all types; cooked, raw and manicured. You spend a few hours chatting and eating then say goodbyes. Afterward the clean-up begins. You save a lot of the excess food left on the table. With plastic containers and a large fridge little gets sent to the compost and your meal is fairly benign.
But as an industry, food provisioning can do with great improvement. Nearly one in four of the calories of food produced ends up being discarded, mostly due to the producer to retailer link. World-wide that’s 1.3 billion tonnes of wasted food. If the average energy content of the food is 10 000J per gram then that’s about 1.3e19Joules of food energy wasted. And that’s only the food’s energy content. It does not include the seeding, fertilizer, watering, reaping and transportation. Why do we let this industry operate this way?
Just imagine if a quarter of all agricultural land was returned to its natural condition. If the production of fertilizer and farm equipment was dropped by a quarter. And if food was again sanctified as the essential that it is. Maybe this could get us back to being a responsible partner on this shared planet Earth.
March 12th, 2017
The impact from a human living off the land shouldn’t be that great. After all, once upon a time we had no consumer durables and most everything we acquired directly aided our moment by moment effort for survival. At that time fewer than a million people traipsed over all the land. A million people spread all over Earth’s land mass wouldn’t have had much of an effect.
Today we’ve turned the tables on being subsistence survivors. Readily available energy allows everyone to have copious quantities of consumer durables. And mechanization enables food for all; at least if we distribute it fairly. Yet the crux of these benefits lies with the accessibility of cheap energy. Our food production needs mechanization. It also needs fertilizer. Lots and lots to the amount of hundreds of millions of tonnes. Bread, a standard for many people’s meals, has had its fertilizer production assigned with 43% of its total greenhouse gas emissions. Mostly from the energy used to make the fertilizer to grow the bread’s grain. Seems we can’t even make bread for our table without the energy use having a side effect.
While the end of accessible, cheap energy may ameliorate the production of greenhouse gases what would it do to the dining experiences of over 7 billion people? Could seven billion people return to a subsistence hunter, gatherer state? Do you want to compete with your neighbor so as to catch and eat that mouse that just went by?
February 12th, 2017
News of the water cycle inundates us every day. We call this ‘the weather’. Most of us love the warm, bright Sun and complain about the rain. Some who get too much Sun have the inverse regard. Yet hidden within this cycle is the process that makes the water on Earth drinkable. Without this cycle we’d very quickly run out of water to drink and our future would be very dim. So one would think that we’d value all expects of the water cycle.
A recent announcement enumerated housing starts in Canada as well over 200,000 a month. The same for most of the previous decades. The average housing lot size is 30ft by 100ft in the suburbs. Each year as for many of the previous decades new houses made about 67000 hectares sterile landscape. Void of autotrophs. Void of water processors. Void of natural energy capturers. And there’s no expectation that housing starts will diminish as the country’s economy relies upon it.
Yet we cherish our homes. Our nests. Our safe havens from which to bear children. Raise them. And set them out to seek their way in the world. How many new human nests can our world accommodate? And will our children end up with a world full of human nests and not much else? Not even the water cycle.
January 8th, 2017
Being sustainable lets us believe in an endless continuance. If people lived sustainably upon Earth then we’d expect things to remain roughly the same for a very many lifetimes. Just as we saw happened for the dinosaurs; at least according to dinosaur fossils. However we know energy or rather its potential doesn’t get recharged and we haven’t a replacement yet. This prevents us from living truly sustainably.
The same concern can be said for other resources such as water. Most people live within ready access to water but of course we know that all water is not equal. We drink potable water. And we sail upon ocean water however we’d never drink it! To make it potable we utilize desalination plants. Seems we’re relying upon these plants a lot. Worldwide we have well over 18000 of them pumping out over 86.8 million cubic metres of potable water every day. This is a recent phenomenon as their construction began only in 1955. What’s its energy cost. One reference puts the plants’ average power draw at 3 kWh per m3. This calculates to 3.4e17 J per year of energy dedicated to providing us with water. At least half of this energy for desalination comes from fossil fuels. And of course there’s a waste stream. The effluent from a desalination plant gets discarded nearby usually to a negative effect upon the ecosystem. Yes indeed we see from this that our use of the Earth’s water resources isn’t sustainable either.
About 1% of our human population relies upon water from desalination plants. They have no other ready source of potable water. This percentage continues to increase. How do we affect a sustainable, endless continuance when we our reliance upon artificial means grows? And the ready supplies of energy get consumed? What does this makes you think about sustainability and our future?
December 3rd, 2016
Pull up a chair and listen closely. I’m going to give you today’s lesson. It’s something neat. Something we’ve already taught here. This is more about the concept of energy returned on energy invested; EROEI. Don’t be frightened, it’s just reality of which I speak to you today.
Let’s begin. With great fanfare the U.S. Geological Society announced the identification of the largest oil and gas reserve in the continental US. “Big?” you ask. Yes it’s huge. About 20 billion barrels of oil and 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That’s equal to about 3 years of total petroleum consumption by the U.S. “What a wonderful discovery” everyone exclaimed. “We always knew that those peak-oil advocates we’re just spouting alarmist speech” they continued. Not only were car drivers happy but also national economists who envisioned a return of world leadership and luxuries for all. This is the first part of our lesson.
Now the average person is no slouch. They certainly would have thought “this can’t be new as we’ve already got a pretty good idea on what’s economically available.” Well some went further and punched the numbers. Art Berman at Forbes did this. He agreed that the oil and natural gas could be extracted using today’s technology. But at today’s prices it would cost $700M to extract. It would cost! Simply put, it would take more effort to get the energy out of the ground than would ever be returned. The EROEI would be less than one. How’s that for not being a slouch?
Knowing that all the easily extracted energy stores have long since been consumed do you wonder when the global EROEI will slip to less than one? What then my precious students?